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  • Paul Semendinger

RUTH vs OHTANI: A Different Perspective...

By Paul Semendinger, Ed.D.

December 26, 2022

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NOTE - This article appeared in the IBWA Newsletter on Saturday, December 17, 2022.

***

Over the last many decades, it has been fashionable to discount many of Babe Ruth's accomplishments. We've seen this a lot. "The Babe was great, but..."


There have been a host of reasons why writers, experts, fans, and others have discounted many of Babe Ruth's great accomplishments ranging from the fact that he played before integration and also before the rise of great relief pitching. We have heard that the overall level of competition wasn't of the level it is today, that Yankee Stadium was designed for Ruth's swing specifically, that the ball might have been livelier, that there were no West Coast trips or night games, on and on...


"The Babe was great, but..."


I think it's difficult to imagine or understand today just what a unique and special baseball player Babe Ruth was. Because of that it is sometimes easier to write off or denigrate many of his amazing accomplishments.


Today we see a new Babe Ruth-type player — a great player in his own right — Shohei Ohtani. And, for some, what Ohtani is accomplishing seems even more impressive than what Ruth did.

In the history of Major League Baseball, there have been only two players who have been both great pitchers and great hitters, basically at the same time. Those players are, of course, Ruth and Ohtani. But, when Ruth was a great pitcher, he didn't bat as often, and once he became a full-time position player (outfielder), he rarely ever pitched.


Ohtani, on the other hand, is hitting and pitching at the same time, giving rise to the latest way to discount Babe Ruth's accomplishments, "The Babe was never the pitcher and hitter that Ohtani is at the same time."


And that is primarily true.


In Babe Ruths's first four seasons (1914-17), he was a pitcher exclusively. He hit extremely well for a pitcher in that time, or any time, batting .299 with 9 homers and 50 runs batted in.

It was in 1918 that Ruth started to become a two-way player. In that year, Ruth pitched in 20 games (19 starts and 166.1 innings while going 13-7, 2.22). He also played in 47 games in left field, 12 games in center field, and 13 at first base while batting .300 with 11 homers (to lead the league) and 61 runs batted in.


(Ruth also led the league in Slugging Percentage and OPS, but those were not the statistics of the day, so for the purposes of this article, we'll stick with the traditional old counting stats of batting averages, home runs, runs batted in, and pitcher wins, losses, and earned run average.)


That was a season unlike almost any ever seen before. In 1918 (in helping the Red Sox to a World Championship), the Babe played significantly in the field and was also a reliable starting pitcher.


That is something that Shohei Ohtani has never done, and I'm not just talking about the World Championship part. But, before I get ahead of myself...


The next season, in 1919, Babe Ruth pitched in 17 games (15 starts). He logged 133.1 innings while going 9-5, 2.97. In the field, Ruth played in 111 games in the outfield (all but one in right field) and five games at first base. In 1919, Ruth blasted 29 homers (to lead the league) with 113 runs batted in (to also lead the league) while batting .322. A new day had dawned...


In 1920, Ruth was a Yankee and his pitching days were all but over. Ruth would pitch five times as a Yankee (going 5-0) with one start in four different seasons: 1920, 1921, 1930, and 1933. (He appeared in relief once in 1921.)


All told, in summary, there were only two seasons, 1918 and 1919, where Babe Ruth was a pitcher and a hitter. That was a practice he couldn't sustain.


In comparison, Shohei Ohtani has been a pitcher and a hitter in... wait... just a little more than two seasons?


2018: 104 games, but just 10 games pitched

2019: 106 games, and none as a pitcher

2020: 44 games, and just two as a pitcher...


The two seasons where Shohei Ohtani has been like Babe Ruth, appearing throughout the year as a pitcher and as a hitter have been 2021 and 2022. To date, he really hasn't done anything vastly different than what Ruth accomplished in 1918 and 1919.


In 2021, Shohei Ohtani pitched in 23 games (23 starts). He logged 130.1 innings while going 9-2, 3.18. Ohtani batted in 155 games hitting .257/46/100.


In 2022, Ohtani pitched in 28 games (28 starts). He logged 166 innings while going 15-9, 2.33. Ohtani batted in 157 games hitting .273/34/95.


Now, I do not wish to detract from Shohei Ohtani's great abilities nor his success. Shohei Ohtani is a tremendous baseball player, one of the greats in the game, and he is doing something, as a pitcher and a hitter, that, to date, has only been accomplished once before, by Babe Ruth. (It is interesting to look at their innings pitched over those two full seasons of batting and pitching and see how close they are, since it's almost identical - Ruth pitched 299.2 innings compared to Ohtani's 296.1.)


But here is the statistic that no one has looked at, and it's an area that demonstrates just how great Ruth was. In this statistic, Ruth's numbers bury Ohtani's. It's not even close. In this statistic, Ruth wins 554 to 0.


Many fans of the game, believe that Shohei Ohtani is a great pitcher and a great outfielder. But he isn't. At all.


Shohei Ohtani is a great pitcher and a great hitter, but he's not an outfielder. Shohei Ohtani doesn't play the outfield. In the entirety of his Major League career, Shohei Ohtani has appeared in the field (at a position other than pitcher) in just 7 games (for a grand total of only 8.1 innings) and he had never made a play on defense. His total chances remain at zero. Over the two seasons 1918 and 1919, Babe Ruth was involved in 554 chances in the field. Making plays on defense (at a position other than pitcher) is something Shohei Ohtani has never done.


Now, in 2023, when Ohtani bats and pitches and does something that Babe Ruth never did — having a full third season excelling those roles, we have to also remember that he has an advantage that Babe Ruth never had... a position known as the Designated Hitter.


As I noted at the beginning, it is relatively easy to discount much of what Babe Ruth has accomplished. I have been reading the likes of arguments such as I laid out at the start for decades now, but the comparison to what he did in 1918 and 1919 shouldn't be compared as similar to what Shohei Ohtani has accomplished. Ohtani has an advantage that Ruth never had: a position where all he has to do is hit, and not play the field.


I have to wonder, if there had been a Designated Hitter back in the 1920s, if Babe Ruth might also have continued pitching, and quite possibly, with more days off from running in the outfield (Ruth played in 2,241 games in the outfield!) if his batting statistic would have been even that much better.


Shohei Ohtani is great, but he has not accomplished what Babe Ruth did.


It's time we also give the Babe some credit.


***

Dr. Paul Semendinger is a writer, baseball player, marathoner, college professor, and retired school principal. His newest book, a collaboration with the great Yankee Roy White, From Compton to the Bronx, will be released in April but it available for pre-order now. He says it would make a fastastic holiday gift — one that a person would look forward to receiving in the new year.

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